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Interview with a Magic Circle Associate

Tara Rajah, Associate @ Allen & Overy

Tara started as a trainee solicitor with Allen & Overy in September, 2006. Since qualifying in August, 2008, she has worked within the firm’s Corporate practice. We were lucky enough to get the chance to talk to Tara about her career so far, her ambitions for the future and what it’s like to be an associate at an international law firm.

AAC: Why did you choose to specialise in corporate law?

Tara: When I was at university, I always had a certain leaning towards financial and commercial law modules. So when it came to applying for training contracts, I was certain that I wanted to practice commercial law rather than, for example, criminal law. But I didn’t really choose to specialise in corporate law until I was working as a trainee at Allen & Overy.

My first seat was actually in our Corporate practice; it was for six months and I absolutely loved it! I found it exciting, interesting and technically intriguing and I suppose it set the standard for the other seats I did after that. My second six month seat was in Tax and then I did three months in Banking and three months in Commercial Litigation. Finally, I did my last seat in Bangkok for six months, which was just brilliant!

Whilst I enjoyed all of my seats immensely, nothing quite compared to corporate. It can be very technical, which I really enjoy, but equally it's kind of like a big jigsaw puzzle! There’s lots of scope for restructuring and reorganising in incredible detail, but you’ve also always got to be thinking about the bigger picture.

AAC: What advice would you give to people that are trying to decide which area of law to specialise in?

Tara: Don’t try to decide too early! Sure, when you’re applying for training contracts you need to have a fairly good idea of the area that you want to move into, because it will effectively determine which firms you apply to. You really need to consider where your interests lie. If you want to do criminal law, then there’s no point in applying to commercial law firms.

You don’t necessarily need to decide on a really specific area though. It’s all about keeping an open mind. Even as a trainee, you need to explore your options. You should learn from your experiences, discover what is best suited to you and then make an educated decision.

From my vacation scheme onwards, Allen & Overy’s Finance practice really appealed to me, because it was renowned as very strong! And by finance, I mean all aspects of it: structured, leveraged, corporate, etc. However, by the end of my training contract, it was clear to me that the specific skill set and technical knowledge that was required to practise corporate law really excited me; and that’s how I was able to decide which department to apply to on qualification.

Still now as an associate, my seniors encourage me not to focus on one really specific area of M&A law, but rather to get as varied a diet as possible.

AAC: How has your working life changed since becoming an associate?

Tara: When you become an associate, you definitely feel like there’s a new level of expectation! It’s not that you’re put under any extra pressure. Indeed, everyone is incredibly understanding of the new challenges you’re facing; and you are given fantastic support from seniors. However, you definitely have a different sense of self-consciousness.

Even as a trainee you have responsibility to act as an ambassador for the firm, but once you become an associate, you have the authority to represent the firm in a more literal sense. Even the job title at the bottom of your email, makes you more aware of your new found level of responsibility.

Making the step up is certainly a tough learning curve. Rather than focusing on individual pieces of work, you are now responsible for entire work streams. Furthermore, you’re the person that trainees come to for help and advice. I’ve definitely learned from my experiences as a trainee though and I try to be as approachable as possible!

When I first qualified, I was told to acknowledge the fact that I had been offered a position, and to translate this into self-confidence. This does help with the step up, but what takes much longer is applying this self-belief to the new job description, working out the shift in responsibility and work product, what to expect and what others are expecting from you. Thankfully, I had fantastic support from my room-mate, friends in my intake and seniors in my team. All of that helps, but you really do just have to work it out for yourself and settle in in your own way.

AAC: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since becoming an associate?

Tara: There is certainly a shift in what you’re supposed to take on; and the more you prove yourself, the more responsibility you are given. You definitely have a greater amount of independence and autonomy.

You still have support from your seniors, but you don’t constantly have someone looking over your shoulder. You don’t have the same fall back that you had as a trainee. When it comes down to it, you’re a lot more conscious of asking for help and advice, because you feel that it reflects on your performance.

Furthermore, you have to find your own work. It’s not like when you’re a trainee and work is simply given to you. You have to take the initiative to liaise with senior associates and find out what interesting projects are coming up.

AAC: Where do you see your career going from here?

Tara: I’m very happy in law and I would be happy to stay in law. However, at the moment I’m not fixated on reaching any specific point. So much can happen in 24 hours, especially in commercial law, and the definition of ‘doing well’ changes all the time.

It’s good to be ambitious and to have long terms goals, but I’m not putting any deadlines on reaching them at the moment. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing and I’m just focused on working hard on current projects. I think it’s better to be patient and set yourself short-term goals. For instance, I've spent much of my time since qualification working on private M&A projects, and so whilst I want to continue this, I'm also looking at broadening my focus and getting involved in some public M&A work as well.

AAC: What is your ultimate ambition?

Tara: That's a difficult question because the legal industry is such a dynamic place! For example, some of the senior level roles in Allen & Overy didn’t even exist a few years ago. It's extremely important to me that, whatever I do, I really enjoy it, and so I’m happy to keep an open mind for now! I‘d just like to make sure that I continue to get a broad but substantive experience for my level and ability, and to be working within the higher end of that.

AAC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Tara: It wasn’t until I was offered my training contract with Allen & Overy that I realised that this was something that I really, really wanted to do! Law wasn’t a subject I’d studied at school, so it was interesting to do something new when I got to university. It also seemed to strike a good balance between the various A-levels I’d studied.

I’d always enjoyed arts subjects the most, but I also did maths A-level. The structural nature of maths appealed to me and the fact that you have to reason through your answers has always seemed to have a certain parallel with law.

When I was at university, I never really honed in on exactly what I was going to do with my degree. Law provides you with so many translatable skills and you can move into a range of different professions. But, without a doubt, I am happy with the choice I made!

AAC: What is your academic background?

Tara: My A-Levels were in history, English literature, economics, government and politics and maths. I then went to Cambridge University where I read law (probably the most fitting amalgam of my A-Levels!), followed by the LPC at BPP Law School in London.

AAC: What has been the best moment of your career so far?

Tara: The six months I spent working in Bangkok were amazing. It was the final seat of my training contract and it was a great way to complete it. It is an incredible city and I met some wonderful people.

Living and working abroad was a great challenge and the content of the work was very different, but the fact that I was still working for Allen & Overy made me feel really comfortable. It was almost like your family having another house abroad!

I did work very hard whilst I was there, but I also got the chance to travel around, both independently and also by visiting friends who were on secondment at the same time in neighbouring cities, like Hong Kong and Tokyo. It was just fantastic and I was really fortunate to have the opportunity.

AAC: What has been the worst moment of your career so far?

Tara: There hasn’t been any one defining moment that I would say has been the worst! You do come up against challenging situations all the time, but it’s usually when you are time-pressured and you have imminent deadlines to meet. The smaller things seem a lot bigger when you’re under pressure! And sometimes it's actually you putting yourself under pressure, because you always want to provide an impeccable service to your clients.

AAC: Why did you choose to work for Allen & Overy?

Tara: I find that Allen & Overy strives to reach not only a high, but also a unique standard, in everything that it does, and that is the kind of place that I want to be working in. For example, Allen & Overy’s training is pretty much unrivalled.

I’d always read something to that effect in graduate directories when I was deciding which firms to apply to, and now on the other side of a training contract, I do feel that that's true! The training isn’t done merely to meet Law Society or other compulsory standards; it is personalised, and really pays attention to the smaller points. For instance, there are sessions and courses on how to manage your time and how to tailor your professional development to your personality and interests. And this isn't just during your training contract, but continues throughout your whole time at the firm. It’s a very nurturing environment and you’re given support in all aspects of your life.

For further information on opportunities with Allen & Overy, please visit: www.allenovery.com/careeruk